Jay Ryan almost died at the age of 19.

His girlfriend at the time — now his wife, Sarah Ryan — thought he was dead.

The rumblings in the Saint Marys Hospital hallway she occupied that afternoon, July 14, 1996, led her to that thought. Jay had gone into cardiac arrest just before doctors were set to hook him to a left ventricular assistance device, aimed to keep him alive as they waited for a donated heart to arrive for a transplant.

It was a bizarre nightmare that it had come to this. Just a few months before, Jay had been the picture of health, a strapping 5-foot-11, 200-pound freshman on the St. Cloud State University baseball team. He was a catcher, no less, playing that most demanding of positions, equipment strapped to his body and face. Jay was trained to keep everything in front of him in his control.

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But then came a trip to the Boundary Waters with buddies and a mystery virus that would forever change his life.

Shortly after arriving back in his hometown of Northfield, Jay was coughing up blood and struggling to breathe.

The virus had attacked his heart, which was now being measured at three times its normal size, accounting for those violent symptoms and — on July 14, 1996 — had him in cardiac arrest.

“My heart was completely useless at that point,” said Jay, now 44 and a Rochester resident the past 20 years.

Jay didn’t die that day. Those had been just frightened hallway rumors, though it was close.

“His heart had gone into cardiogenic shock,” said Dr. Brooks Edwards, one of the cardiologists working on Jay that day and one who’s been overseeing his care ever since. “His heart had given up.”

Dr. Edwards and the rest of that Saint Marys Hospital team did not give up on Jay. They revived him. And for the next 19 days, they successfully kept him alive, blood pumping through Jay via — by today’s standards — a crude left ventricular assistance machine.

On Aug. 1, 1996, a gift arrived: A donated heart. Some 24 hours later, it was residing in Jay’s chest.

What a journey. Jay had been wheeled into the operating room that frightful day -- July 14, 1996 -- as an “angry” 19-year-old, wondering why his life had taken such a turn.

Now, 25 years later, this husband, father, coach and baseball player is anything but. And he comes complete with a message.

“Life is all about your effort and your attitude,” Jay said. “That’s all you can control in life. My effort and attitude, those have been the pillars of my success. I try to teach them to those I come in contact with.”

Teaching moments

Spreading his message of “controlling the controllables” is something Jay had been doing since May with the Rochester Tornadoes 14-and-under AAA baseball traveling team. Jay was its head coach, and the players included his son, Jack Ryan, who also happens to play catcher.

Baseball isn’t “everything” to Jay. But it is right up there and always has been.

“I can’t tell you how many hours I sat there and listened this summer as Jay talked about this (Tornadoes) team,” said Sarah, love in her voice.

Jay isn’t just a coach, he also remains a baseball player. Looking as fit as can be these days, a powerfully built 220 pounds, Jay plays in a 35-and-older league as a member of the Northfield Millers.

Jay Ryan has leaned on family and baseball in his 25 years since having a heart transplant. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Jay Ryan has leaned on family and baseball in his 25 years since having a heart transplant. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

He does that not only because he still relishes making throws and catches and swinging the bat, but because he wants his two kids to see him playing. He wants Jack, 14, and Luke, 10, to fall in love with the game as he has and for them to take all of the lessons it’s taught him and apply it to their lives.

“That’s what drove me to get back playing again, starting in 2012,” Jay said. “I needed that and now my boys cherish the game as much as I do. It was really just so important for me to be playing again.”

Baseball is brimming with failure, a game where even the top Major League hitters get out more often than they reach base. There are lessons to be learned there, about reacting to disappointments the right way and setting personal frustrations aside for the sake of the team.

Jay considers such things to be the keys to life and the drivers for what has been a healthy last 25 years for him, post-heart transplant. It’s about controlling the controllables, having the right attitude and refusing to give up.

Baseball has helped him learn all of that. And his heart transplant, that’s been an even better teacher.

“What happened to me was a blessing in disguise,” Jay said. “Everything in life happens for a reason. Those are the things that turn us into the people we are today. And (the heart transplant) is going to help shape who my kids are and everyone I come across in life. I feel like my life is a triumph of perseverance. I’m very proud of what I’ve done.”

Celebrating 25 years

On Monday, Jay’s family, a few friends and Dr. Edwards gathered for a brief surprise party for Jay outside of Mayo Clinic, commemorating his 25th year with a transplanted heart.

The average survival rate following a heart transplant is 14 years. Jay has come close to doubling that, and has had no trouble in recent years as he’s taken impeccable care of himself and listened to and religiously followed everything doctors have prescribed for him.

Dr. Edwards says that Jay deserves a massive amount of credit.

“Jay is just a wonderful guy who has been so grateful for the gift of life,” Dr. Edwards said. “From the moment he received it, he has taken exceptionally good care of himself and has been a good citizen and father. If anyone deserves a good outcome, it is him.”

And that baseball team of Jay’s, those 14-and-under Tornadoes, they also received a good outcome.

The Rochester 14-under AAA Tornadoes captured the state baseball championship to end their season, coached by Jay Ryan.
The Rochester 14-under AAA Tornadoes captured the state baseball championship to end their season, coached by Jay Ryan.

Things weren’t looking so hot about one-third into their season. The Tornadoes were on a five-game losing streak, many of them muttering after striking out, occasionally pounding their bats into the ground and seemingly having lost their way.

That’s when Jay had seen enough. He gathered them and told them his story, how he could easily have died, but instead refused to give up, as did everyone around him.

They controlled what they could those 25 years ago and after, kept putting one foot in front of the other and lifted each other along the way. Jay told the Tornadoes baseball team this with tears in his eyes, wanting so badly for them to learn from him.

They did. Rarely did another bat get pounded into the ground in disgust. They began operating as a real team from then on, there for each other, now continually lifting and picking each other up. They became what Jay values most, a “family.”

And they won. Out of eight tournaments, they reached the championship five times, winning four of them, including a state title to conclude their season.

“It was an emotional time for me,” Jay said. “I wanted them to respect the game and to play it the right way. The game of baseball deserves that. I’m just very grateful that I had a chance to impact their lives and get their attention.”

Twenty-five years ago, the game of life got Jay Ryan’s attention. It’s never let go.